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Getting Soft Hackled

Fly Fishing for Rainbow TroutJust about every trout stream on the planet has massive caddis hatches on summer evenings, and it’s great to see fish rising as the sun falls.

Yet, catching those rising fish is often kind of tough.

For years, I would wait for rising trout — and then tie on a good dry fly, such as an X-Caddis or an Elk Hair Caddis.

Those great flies often floated untouched through flurries of rising trout.

So, then I’d tie on a caddis that lies flat on the water, such as Mike Lawson’s Spent Partridge Caddis. This is a terrific fly when trout are picking off dead egg-laying caddis or even crippled caddis.

Still, that didn’t work on a lot of evening hatches.

I was pretty focused on staying righteous with the dry fly. I mean, the trout were rising, right? I just had to find the right fly.

Over time, I started noticing two things:

First, I often hooked nice trout when I lost track of my dry fly in the gloom, and it was just under the surface downstream from me.

Second, most of those rising trout were showing me their dorsal fins and tails. I rarely saw a nose or a bubble in the rise ring.

I realized that many — maybe most — of those trout were feeding on emerging caddis pupa just below the surface. Showing these fish a dry, adult caddis was just dumb.

Back to the Future

One humid summer night on Oregon’s Crooked River, I broke down and tied on a half-crushed, size 16 soft hackle fly that I found in one of my boxes. I looped out a cast and let the fly slowly swing downstream into a rise form.

I didn’t get a bite on a couple of casts, so I took a step downstream and cast without changing the length of my cast.

I was busily waving flying caddis adults away from my face when my line tightened. Startled, I jerked the rod into a dry-fly hookset — and felt the fly rattle out of the trout’s mouth.

A few casts — and a couple of steps — later, my line tightened again, and I made a point of just swinging my rod toward the bank. The reel buzzed, and all was good with the world.

I worked that little soft hackle through those tough, fished-over rainbows until the moon rose over the Crooked River canyon. The fish were silly for that fly.

None of this is new

Swinging a soft hackle was just as fun — and not as frustrating — as trying to force-feed the trout into eating my dry fly. Yes, swinging a soft hackle is Fly Fishing 101, but this method has worked for centuries.

So, now I have a new program for evening caddis hatches. It goes like this:

If the trout are showing me dorsals and tails — but no bubbles — I tie on a soft hackle. I try to match the size of the hatching caddis. On a lot of my Oregon and Washington rivers, multiple species of caddis hatch every summer evening. They range in size from size 14 to size 20. I could go all Latin here, but it’s just as accurate to say that the bugs are cream, olive, tan, brown or black.

The great thing is that matching color isn’t as important as matching the size of the emerging bug.

So, I tie a generic soft hackle fly:

Hook: Size 14-20 Tiemco 3761 or Firehole 609

Thread: 8/0 to match color of dubbing

Body: Blue Ribbon Flies Zelon dubbing. I usually use Hydropsyche Tan, Black or Rhycophilla. Remember, we’re fishing with the light off the water, so the fish are mostly seeing shapes — not colors. Sometimes the fish are picky, but most of the time they’re not. I like it when the dubbing is all messy and spiky on the hood. So do the trout.

Ribbing: Small copper, gold or silver Ultra Wire.

Tail: A small tuft of white or amber Zelon or Antron. Yes, I know that caddis don’t have tails, but they often drag half-shucked pupal skins.

Hackle: Two or three turns of Hungarian Partridge soft hackle. I like the hackle fibers to arc over the entire body of the fly. Why? Get an aquarium net and catch some hatching caddis. The drifting pupa often have a humpbacked shape. That swept-back soft hackle matches this perfectly.

This simple fly is often the solution when caddis are hatching at the end of a summer day. Use about three feet of 5X or 6X tippet on a 9-foot to 12-foot leader. All told, your leader should be 12 to 15 feet long. If you can use 4X on your river, send me an e-mail. I’ll be right over.

If you can, limit the length of your cast to 30 feet. Take a small, quiet step downstream after making two or three downstream swings. Rinse and repeat. In this way, you can cover every trout in the run or riffle.

Still, wouldn’t it be great to tie on a dry and catch an evening riser?

If you have to fish a dry fly, there is a way.

Cheating on the Railroad Ranch

I was on the Railroad Ranch section — downstream of the Osborne Bridge — of the Henry’s Fork River in Idaho two summers ago. I had hooked and lost a very nice rainbow on a Spent Partridge Caddis just as the sun got off the water, but the trout didn’t want it as the sky darkened. They were rising in that steady, porpoising rhythm that comes with a lot of hatching caddis in the water.

I think Railroad Ranch rainbows are the toughest trout on the planet.

I looked around. I felt funny about tying on a soft hackle on this Holiest of Dry Fly Rivers, but I was sure the trout were on emerging caddis just below the surface.

A few anglers were upstream. It looked like they were fishing dries to there own pods of lockjaw trout.

Well, why not?

I tied on a size 16 Generic soft hackle and let it drift down and across into a rise form. The fly wasn’t even swinging yet, but I saw the tippet slice into the current. I swung my rod toward the bank, and my reel lit up.

That fish broke me off — it was the Henry’s Fork, right?

But that lost rainbow taught me something new — that a soft hackle doesn’t always have to swing in the current to fool a wise trout feeding on emerging caddis.

I tied on an X-Caddis dry in size 16 — and then tied on a 12-inch section of 5X onto the bend of the hook. A size 16 soft hackle went onto that tippet.

I slowly worked my way downstream, making downstream reach casts to rising fish. The X-Caddis was my bobber — and it dipped under the surface a few times. I’m always delighted to catch just one fish during a session on the Railroad Ranch, but this turned into my best evening of 20 years of evenings on this great river.

One nice rainbow even ate the X-Caddis.

I’ve used this dry-soft hackle dropper method a lot since that evening, and it’s a great way to cover two caddis bases at once — especially on slow water or the swirling currents of a backeddy.

I think that dead-drifting soft hackle fly blooms like a flower and quivers in the current.

I like keeping the dropper soft hackle within a foot of my dead-drifting X-Caddis. It’s hard to see anything as the sun sets, and that short dropper tippet moves the X-Caddis instantly when a trout sucks in the soft hackle.

Remember to NOT drag that dry fly across the surface near feeding fish. Just let it drift through the rises — and then let it submerge and swim toward the bank when the drift is over.

Try to keep your casts short and accurate when you’re doing the dry-soft hackle dance.

So, yeah, go ahead a fish a dry fly when trout rise and caddis fly on a summer evening. Just make sure you have a soft hackle trailing off the back — and into a trout’s mouth.